Assigning goal value to Toronto's faceoff takers

Jeff Veillette
February 13 2017 04:32PM

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Photo Credit: Dan Hamilton/USA TODAY SPORTS

Shortly after I woke up this morning, I stumbled upon a tweet from Empirical Sports co-founder Michael Schuckers, referencing an analysis that he and a few peers had done years prior on the statistical value of a faceoff in the National Hockey League. Their finding was that you needed an approximate faceoff differential of 76.5 for your talents at the dot to be worth a goal differential of 1. They also broke it down into even strength and special teams, and into specific zones.

The final findings were summed up in this table:

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This had me intrigued as to the impact that Toronto's faceoff takers had, both in the positives and negatives. So I made a rudimentary Faceoffs Above Replacement model. By model, I dropped a few formulas into Excel, and by replacement, I mean the 50% league average rather than actual Replacement-Tier talent, but "Faceoffs Above Replacement Model" sounds academic and cool.

What I did was extremely simple: I broke Toronto's seven players who had taken 100+ faceoffs this year into Even Strength and Special Teams results. There's a lot of room for refinements here: Schuckers' data might have (very slightly) varying results if it used a more recent data set, and, as I was having trouble finding aligned zone breakdowns for draws won/taken (a player getting thrown out of the draw messes with using Zone Starts), I focused just on the strengths. That means these numbers are inexact, but given that Toronto isn't very far off from the average in zone starts at Even Strength, on the Powerplay, or on the Penalty Kill, this will still bring us to our unscientific ballpark. Just keep in mind that all numbers are approximated, and exist to give a ballpark estimate on value over an average player in the same situation.

Here's what I found.

Tyler Bozak

Bozak is Toronto's most frequent faceoff taker, as he has been for most of the years he's been here. That's because he's good at it and mostly keeps up as a player as well; this year, he's 56.61% at the dot and pivots a line with James Van Riemsdyk and Mitch Marner.

Compared to having a 50% draw-taker take his place, Bozak has gained the Leafs approximately 0.97 goals at even strength, 0.37 goals on special teams, and 1.34 goals total out of 862 faceoffs. For every 100 draws he's taken, he has earned the team approximately 0.16 goals, and requires about 643 faceoffs to gain an extra goal over the 50% draw taker.

Nazem Kadri

Kadri has become Toronto's shutdown centreman, tasked with neutralizing some of the league's best forwards, along with Leo Komarov and a seemingly rotating winger (currently, it's William Nylander). Mike Babcock has expressed that he'd like Kadri to improve upon his poor career performance at the dot, though, and at 45.91% this year, that's pretty understandable. Having initial possession, after all, means less time spent having to shut those opponents down.

So far this year, Kadri has "cost" the Leafs 0.63 goals against at the dot over 771 draws or 0.08 goals against for every 100 taken. It would take Kadri approximately 1275 faceoffs to give up a goal more than a 50% faceoff man would in the same situation.

Auston Matthews

Young Auston has taken the city by storm, but he hasn't taken the circle over just yet. This year, he's pitching just 45.79% at the dot, doing slightly better on the powerplay than he is at even strength. The team doesn't seem too phased, though, because faceoffs are just one form of puck battling and, well, have you seen that kid along the boards?

Even still, it's worth noting where he stands, and where he stands is right around Kadri's range. In 725 faceoffs, his 45.79% rate has theoretically cost the Leafs approximately 0.64 goals over a 50% faceoff man. That comes out to 0.09 goals per 100 faceoffs, or a goal every 1125 draws.

Ben Smith

This is the one that I'm sure most have been waiting for. Why? Well, if you believe the quotes, faceoffs are why Smith has his job with the Leafs to begin with. He was hyped up as the right-handed key to getting the puck out of the defensive zone as soon as possible on the penalty kill, and...

He hasn't done super brilliantly, in theory. He's won about 49.56 of his draws on the penalty kill (1 fewer than 50%). However, it's worth noting that penalty killing teams tend to be the underdogs at the dot, as they have fewer bodies in tie-up situations. Still, though, his net gains, while existent, aren't massive. over 355 draws, Smith's performance would typically gain the Leafs 0.19 goals. That's equivalent to 0.05 goals per 100 faceoffs, or a goal every 1900 draws. It's no surprise that Smith, at 52.68% on the year, carries the second highest benefit of the group, but it still isn't much of one.

The Others

I looked at three others, using the threshold of 100+ draws. 

Frederik Gauthier took 207 faceoffs during his call up here, and while he was unreal at even strength (55.3%), going 43.48% on the PK actually led to him being a slight net negative, at a value of -0.08 goals, or a theoretical goal against every 2516 draws in comparison to someone who goes 50% across the board.

Leo Komarov takes most of his draws on the penalty kill, in the event his unit needs a leftie, and he's also a net negative. This year, he sits at -0.26 goals earned by Faceoff Wins over a 50% taker thanks to his 44.8% total, or -0.21 goals per 100 draws, or a goal against approximately every 482 draws.

William Nylander sits in a similar boat, though most of his faceoffs have come at even strength. He's a putrid 40.57% at the circle, which probably has a lot to do with Babcock's decision that he will play the year out as a Right Winger instead. In just 106 draws, his performance is equivalent to a cost of -0.23 goals; or a goal against every 468 faceoffs compared to the 50% mystery player.

Application

Naturally, practical deployment of players at the dot isn't exactly cut and dry or a weighted coin toss. There are factors that will influence the potential result sometimes; a size/handedness mismatch, for example. Not to mention, a great faceoff taker will probably add a couple percentage points to the spreadsheet if he's always facing bad players.

With this in mind, you'll find yourself in situations where you want to give yourself a bit more of a shot at winning, and you'll send out the best-suited player out of what you've got. Occasionally, you'll even get that goal you wanted, and you'll sit back and be happy you sent the right player out there, and that the player was capable.

But save for hot streaks, it's rare that the results deviate significantly from the above patterns. We're still at a point where the best specialists in the league couldn't be reliably bet upon to win two or three draws in a row, let alone be a safe bet to win every time you need them to. 

Usually, that's nothing to stress over, because the winning team will pass around the puck a bit and maybe attempt a shot before possession goes the other way again, and you'll forget abut it. But when it does directly lead to a goal, it feels super, super important. It becomes the broadcast talking point, it becomes the subject of the next social media fight, it gets further cemented into the team's list of things to work on.

Which is great, in the right context. Working with your centres for an extra few minutes during practice to get them a little better at it? Sure. Get them in the video room to watch their upcoming opponents' habits? Definitely. Try to find optimize the matchups of the players you happen to have dressed? Absolutely. Work on how the other two to four skaters react after the draw is won or lost, to ensure maintenance or regaining of possession? That would be massive.

But when deciding who should be in the lineup, or whether a player should be acquired at the expense of another, or whether it's worth giving a nice free agent contract to the player with the best numbers in the circle available, you have to ask yourself; is the gap between bad and good at this role enough to make them a more impactful overall player than the other option? Is it worth the asset and/or financial cost of making a replacement, or can you acquire a bigger goal impact in a more efficient way?

As it stands, we put a gigantic premium on being 5% more likely to be in a position to have a 1 in 76.5 chance of being directly involved in a goal. That's where the issue lies. While teams should be doing whatever they can in-house to make their players better in every way (I'm all in favour of giving a Yanic Perreault or a David Steckel a truckful of non-cap money to be an official Faceoff Coach), there are probably more efficient ways to acquire a small handful of potential goals above the average than chasing faceoff specialists; especially if they're costing you in other parts of the ice.

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Managing Editor of Hockey Content at the Nation Network. Just here so I'll get the opposite of fined. If you'd like to collaborate or simply have a question, email me at jeff@veillette.me